Baby find their thumb and start sucking? Learn about the benefits of thumbsucking for babies and why having a thumbsucker can be a great thing!
Finding your baby sucking on their thumb for the first time is not only adorable, it’s a sign that they’re developing as they should be!
While many of us think of thumb-sucking as a habit that needs to be broken, there are actually plenty of benefits of thumb sucking. This is especially true when your baby is young.
I’m here to help you embrace the thumb sucking, especially if it’s helping your little one get some rest!
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Is a Pacifier Better Than the Thumb?
There isn’t any definitive evidence to suggest that a pacifier is better than the thumb, or vice versa. Each have their own benefits.
It’s also not an either/or situation. There may be some situations where your baby likes to take a pacifier, and others when their thumb will do the trick.
In my opinion, whichever your baby gravitates toward is fine. But if you find that your baby is having trouble self-soothing and they don’t seem to have an interest in sucking on their own hand, I would encourage you to introduce a pacifier.
Should I Stop My Baby from Thumb Sucking?
Babies typically “find their hands” sometime between six and eight weeks old. Up until this point, any catching of the hand in the mouth was likely accidental.
As your baby’s gross motor skills develop, their aim and precision with their arms gets better. This allows them to explore an entire new world of sensations with their mouth!
If your baby is an infant, there is no reason to stop them from sucking their thumb. Thumb sucking doesn’t become an issue until it is a prolonged habit over many years.
Of course, there is such thing as too much of a good thing. If your little one is still sucking their thumb by the age of three, it’s time to step in and wean them off of the thumb, much like you would stop using a pacifier around the same age.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) cites adverse dental development if kids continue to thumb-suck or use a pacifier past the age of three.
Benefits of Thumb Sucking for Babies
There are plenty of benefits of thumb sucking, especially during the infant stage. And let’s be honest: if and when your baby finally figures out how to bring their hands to their mouth, there will be no stopping them!
Let’s talk about five of the main benefits of thumb sucking.
1. Babies Have a Non-Nutritive Need to Suck
The non-nutritive urge to suck is also known as the rooting reflex. Babies will typically have this reflex for at least the first 6 months of their lives.
This reflex is standard in normally developing infants. While the rooting reflex is often associated with seeking the breast, it can often be satisfied with a bottle nipple, pacifier, or your baby’s own hands (and sometimes even their toes!).
Have you ever been breastfeeding and felt like your baby is just using you as a pacifier long after the milk is gone? That’s because of their non-nutritive sucking urge.
If your baby finds a way to satiate this sucking need with their thumb instead of your nipple, it’s a win-win!
2. Thumb Sucking Can Have Health Benefits
There have been some studies that show health benefits for babies who suck on their thumbs and/or a pacifier. For example, did you know that the physical motion of sucking on something can help your baby’s digestion?
Not only does sucking increase saliva production (which helps jump-start the digestive process), but it triggers the release of digestive enzymes in your baby’s gut. Sucking can even help relax your baby’s bowels!
Sucking on their hands can also provide your baby with a little immune boost. The introduction to various bacteria on their hands will help form their robust immune system and healthy gut bacteria. The first few months of your baby’s life are a formative time for their gut microbiome.
There’s also research to suggest that thumb-sucking may decrease your child’s likelihood of developing allergies and asthma. Microbial exposure via thumb sucking and nail biting has been shown to decrease sensitivity to food- and air-borne allergens.
3. Thumb Sucking Helps Your Baby Self-Soothe
My goal as a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant is to help teach you and your baby the best ways to approach sleep. A big part of that is helping your baby establish independent sleep habits.
The cornerstone of independent sleep for your baby is learning to self-soothe at bedtime.
Babies have a surefire built-in self-soothing technique, it’s just a matter of them finding it!
Sucking on their own fingers or fists can often help your baby feel more secure. It’s a great way to calm themselves, especially as they drift off to sleep.
4. Babies Can’t Lose Their Thumb
One of the best things about sucking on a thumb instead of a pacifier is that your baby’s thumb is attached to them!
That pesky pacifier has a bad habit of falling out of your baby’s mouth, doesn’t it? And unfortunately, your newborn doesn’t have the dexterity yet to find it and pop it back in their mouth.
If you have a thumb sucker, you’ll spend a lot less time chasing down those runaway pacifiers. You’ll also be spending a lot less money on backups and replacements!
5. Thumb Sucking Can Help with Teething Relief
If you’re like most new parents, you love to blame any and all infant fussiness on teething. And why not? Teething can make for a very fussy baby.
Not only is teething uncomfortable for your baby, but there are so many teeth to grow! Sometimes it feels like your baby is constantly pushing a new tooth during that first year.
When your baby is teething, their gums get inflamed, sore, and itchy. Chewing and sucking can alleviate some of that discomfort.
All of the teething toys and necklaces out there are great, but those things can’t go in your baby’s crib with them at bedtime to practice safe sleep.
One of the benefits of thumb sucking is that it’s one way on how to help your teething baby sleep! Your baby can help manage their own teething discomfort at bedtime by distracting themselves with a little hand in their mouth.
Swaddling a Thumb Sucker
Our daughter started to suck on her fist at around 3 months old, and she loved it.
Her motivation to achieve this new self-soothing maneuver, however, meant that she started busting out of her swaddle at night just to get a taste of her hand.
We knew she slept better when she was swaddled, but now she was waking herself up trying to free her hand from her little baby burrito. She wasn’t rolling yet so we knew it wasn’t time to stop swaddling altogether.
If your baby starts sucking their thumb before they start rolling, it might be time to adjust your swaddle to accommodate their new skill.
You can always try swaddling your baby with one of both of their arms out. You can use a regular swaddle to do this, or buy transitional swaddles like the Love to Dream Swaddle Up which has zippered removable arms.
It might take a few nights for your baby to adjust to their new freedom, but they will eventually learn to use their thumb sucking to get back to sleep!